There is a piece of history that is dark and ugly. Not many people are aware of it because it has not been considered important by many. European impact on Africa was devastating. Entire cultures were turned upside if not eliminated. The treatment of the Congo natives was especially bad.
Africa was torn apart by European powers for the resources it richly provided. Each of the big empires carved a piece of the continent for themselves. In the process, Africa was changed forever. Here, we will focus on the Congo and how the natives there were treated.
In his book, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad describes the workers who once claimed the Congo land as their own and explored it as their ancestors had. He gives a vivid description of how the natives had become nothing more than pack animals for the European settlers.
“A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages. Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently, carrying a rifle by its middle. He had a uniform jacket with one button off, and seeing a white man on the path, hoisted his weapon to his shoulder with alacrity.”
The men who once lived off the land were now the slaves in the Congo Free State. As the native men were removed from their homes to work for the king, the king’s soldiers who policed the state “drove many of those workers to death, raped their wives, plundered their villages, and shot down then of thousands who rebelled.” It is estimated that half the population was killed during Leopold’s dictatorship. Those who lived day to day looking forward to the future were eliminated.
This was no peaceful takeover. The Europeans took everything and left nothing. They more than raped the land and people. They tried to destroy them.
A Rush for Resources
Britain and France cut up Africa in an attempt to obtain resources that would increase their power. The Industrial Revolution had European countries pushing to become the dominant power. The resources they needed could be found in vast quantities in Africa. The rush was one for all of Europe.
I’m not saying what any of the countries did was good, but Britain and France were the nicer of the evils. The difference between their administrations and King Leopold of Belgium was vast. An argument could easily be made that they all imposed new forms of slavery, but research has shown that Leopold’s version was much harsher and devastating. Instead of dictatorship styles of government, local leaders were used or newly appointed.
The British were known for their indirect rule by using leaders who were from the area with a British overseer. The French took the elite of the area and offered higher education. Very little direct control was assumed when compared to the administration of the Congo under Leopold. Even when things got out of hand and the Belgian state took control of the region, the administration of the Congo kept tight control over the area.
The British…Not As Bad
By using local leaders, the British allowed Africans to run the state under their guidance. This meant the exploitation of the people and the land was not as severe as it was under Leopold who had direct control and answered to no one. He was the complete ruler who used and abused those in his care any way he saw fit.
Treating the natives as slaves gave them the status of object. The Belgian king was for complete rape of the Congo.
Leopold Failed the Congo
The Congo Free State was an atrocity in the Scramble for Africa that ignited world protest on the treatment of the African natives by European powers. The severity of Leopold’s treatment of the people and the land brought about a new awareness of European imperialism. It did not matter that Leopold’s rule was much harsher than other European rule. It was the poster child for anti-imperialism. Many around the globe rose up in protest of how cultures were treated by imperialist empires.
The Congo became the voice for African independence to shake the cruel reign of those that cared little for the land or the people.
Buelens, Frans, and Stefaan Marysse. “Returns on investments during the colonial era: the case of the Belgian Congo.” Economic History Review 62, (August 2, 2009). Business Source Elite, EBSCOhost (accessed January 25, 2013).
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
Hochschild, Adam. “Leopold’s Congo: A Holocaust we have yet to comprehend.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Vol 46, Issue 36. May 12, 2000. Accessed January 26, 2013.
Moore, Gene M. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness : A Casebook. n.p.: Oxford University Press, 2004. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 24, 2013).
Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa, 2nd ed. Oxford: Macmillan, 2005.
Weiss, Herbert. “The Congo’s Independence Struggle Viewed Fifty Years Later.” African Studies Review. Vol. 55. Issue 1. April 2012. Accessed January 26, 2013.